Editors and the Periodical Press
( Originally Published 1883 )
NEXT to a publisher, there is no person who has so evil a reputation among literary aspirants as an editor. It is for his general imbecility, however, rather than for any moral turpitude that he is pilloried. He is usually looked upon by that grand army of rejected contributors, who are well known to constitute the real brain-power of the country, as a weak-minded blockhead, constantly engaged in refusing the most brilliant intellectual efforts from sheer incapacity for appreciating them, while allowing himself to accept the crudest offerings of his friends and relations—especially of his grandmother.
Editors are, as a class, fully capable of taking care of themselves, but it may be worth while to present here some of the considerations which must guide them in arriving at their decisions and in shaping their work, and to do what we can toward vindicating a worthy body of men from unmerited obloquy. In the first place, an editor is, as a rule, a man of good purpose, who conscientiously strives to do his duty. This duty is simply to cater to the public, to provide it with that kind of intellectual pabulum for which it craves. Further, he is a man of culture and ability, or he would never have fought his way to such a position, and—what is even more to the point—his training and experience have so fitted him to judge of the public appetite that he knows at a glance whether an article would suit his customers—just as a cheese-monger knows cheese. Bear in mind that, with editor as with cheese-monger, it is not his own taste he seeks to gratify, but that of his customer. The cheese-monger may not like either Stilton or Roquefort, he may even have his doubts as to the absolute wholesomeness of the more athletic brands of Limburger, but so long as the public craves food and not poison he is bound by an implied contract to supply it with the best of that kind of food which it prefers. Therefore in rejecting an article an editor does not imply that it is not good, but merely that it is not available. As the public taste, however, is, in the main, a healthy one, if he were continually finding good articles unavailable and bad ones available, he would himself soon cease to be available as an editor.
With regard to the charge of favoritism, there is no doubt that an editor who is in friendly relations with a band of known and tried contributors would prefer, other things being equal, to accept an article from one of them rather than from a stranger. Again, there are certain contributors to the periodical press whose names carry so much weight with the public that any thing they may write is sure to attract attention, and there is no doubt that, other things being equal again, the editor would rather have an article from a famous, than one from an unknown, writer. These disadvantages, then, the beginner has to struggle against : wherever his work comes into competition with that of a famous man or a literary acquaintance of the editor's he must show that he can write better than either in order to gain admittance. Still, a direct competition of this sort is not very likely to occur ; a magazine can always find room, not only for the contributor who is known to the public, and for the contributor who is known to the editor, but also for the brilliant unknown who is to be the famous contributor of the future. " If you write any thing remarkable " says Dr. Holmes " the magazines will find you out, as the school-boys find out where the ripe apples and pears are. Produce any thing really good, and an intelligent editor will jump at it. Don't flatter yourself that any article of yours is rejected because you are unknown to fame. Nothing pleases an editor more than to get any thing worth having from a new hand. There is always a dearth of really fine articles for a first-rate journal ; for, of a hundred pieces received, ninety are at or below the sea-level : some have water enough, but no head ; some head enough, but no water only two or three are from full reservoirs, high up that hill which is so hard to climb."
The periodical press, at the stage of development which it has reached in these days, is really the greatest assistance to the struggling young author that has ever been tendered him in the history of literature. It provides him with a pulpit to preach from, and an audience already gathered to listen to him. Our two most popular monthlies have about one hundred and fifty thousand subscribers apiece, and probably more than a million readers. A man speaking out from between the covers of these magazines, is speaking to the world. If there is any thing in him, he cannot remain unknown long. Look around among the famous writers of to-day, and you will find that, with only one or two exceptions, they began their career and won their first fame as journalists or as magazinists. The poet who is not financially able to bring out a volume at his own expense, can reach the public through no other medium than the periodicals—for poetry as a merchantable commodity has fallen into such disrepute with publishers that no member of the fraternity would be willing to invest his money in a book of that kind, unless the author were very well and widely known. Publishers are also prejudiced against collections of essays and short stories, and the writer could only hope to dispose of them to magazines. The only form of literature, in fact, from the pen of an unknown author, that has a better chance with publishers than with editors, is the novel. Editors require that their serial stories shall be written by men of note. The reason is obvious. The bare announcement that such and such an author is to contribute a serial to one of the magazines, will draw the admirers of the author to that magazine. But " a charming new story by Mr. Jones or Mr. Smith would have no attractions for the prospective subscriber, because he has not learned to look upon either name as a guarantee of excellence, and the story, consequently, might run its full course through the magazine before the public discovered what a charming thing it really was.
Of the four leading magazines, Harper's and the Century have much the largest circulation. The former, whose existence dates from 1850, is probably still the better known ,of the two in the more remote regions, and on that account its monthly receipts of manuscripts submitted are doubtless the more considerable, while with both magazines the ever-increasing mass of such material must involve no little labor for its proper consideration, and disposal. In its early years Harper's devoted a large proportion of its space to foreign authors, but its later volumes give evidence of a . keen perception for and full appreciation of native talent, and since the practice was abandoned of making all its articles anonymous, its table of contents has presented a large share of the best material of American contributors. The Century, in its egotistic moods, likes to crow a little over the latent talent that it has brought to the surface, and it may do so with justice, for many of the most promising of our younger authors owe to this magazine their introduction to the public. The Atlantic Monthly is quoted as one of the most difficult for the tyro to enter, not because its conductors are less alive to literary excellence when coming from an obscure source, but because its circle of regular contributors is very large, and the space it can devote to new-comers is correspondingly limited.
Lippincott's Magazine, being less burdened with great names than any of the others, is always ready to accord a generous reception to any new contributors of merit.
The price paid for articles by any of the magazines is usually calculated by the page, the rate varying according to the editor's estimate of the value of the material, which includes a consideration of the popular appreciation of the name of the author. In some cases, the better-known authors receive a round sum in place of any schedule price per page. The number of first-class magazinists, though increasing, is still small, and there is often among the editors an active competition for their work. A few authors have been able, in consequence, almost to dictate their terms. Longfellow,. for instance, used to receive as much as two hundred dollars for a short poem, and Bret Harte is said to have been paid one thousand dollars for his short story, The Episode of Fiddletown."
The Atlantic and Lippincott's usually wait to pay for an article until it has been published, while Harper's and the Century make a custom of sending checks for contributions as soon as they are accepted. The same practice prevails with the St. Nicholas, the magazine for young people published by the Century Company.
Besides the above-named periodicals, there are many monthly and weekly journals which are glad to receive contributions of merit from outsiders, and which make it a rule to pay for every thing they accept and publish. Here is a list of papers whose rates of payment are quoted as ranging from $6 to $10 per thousand words :
NEW YORK.-Harper's Weekly, Bazar, and Young People; Leslie's Lady's Journal, Sunday Magazine, etc. ; Demorest's Monthly; Independent; Christian Weekly; Christian Union; Ledger ; New York Weekly.
PHILADELPHIA.-Godey's Lady's Book; Arthur's Home Magazine ; Peterson's Magazine ; The Sunday-School Times Our Continent.
BOSTON.—The Youth's Companion ; Wide Awake ; The Congregationalist.
A number of other periodicals pay smaller amounts for accepted contributions, but with some of these it may be necessary to state beforehand that payment is expected, or after your article has appeared in print you may be politely informed that it is not the custom of this paper to pay for contributions unless arrangements to that effect have been made in advance." A good custom in dealing with the minor papers, is for an author to put at the head of his article, the price for which he will dispose of it.
Many of the sensational or " blood-and-thunder" papers used to pay good prices for accepted contributions, but at present this class of journals are on the decline, and the sums they pay have correspondingly dwindled.
The principal daily papers of New York and other large cities, are always glad to receive articles of timely interest, summer-resort correspondence, etc., where their own body of regular attachés have not already covered the ground. The rate of payment varies from $5.00 to $8.00 a column, and although the more important papers pay for every thing they publish as a matter of course, and without needing any prompting, it may be just as well for the writer to take the preliminary precaution of requesting payment in case his article is accepted.
Literary and critical journals like the Nation, the Critic, and the Literary World, usually employ outsiders to review books for them, but these are always men whose reputation is known to the editor ; and the editor applies to them, they do not apply to the editor. This field, therefore, cannot be looked upon as open to the literary tyro.